Saturday, April 28, 2012

Samir Bhana

I first met Samir Bhana when he was a 9 year old boy whose father was a grad school classmate of Keith's. He was a sweet, polite, boy from South Africa, hungrily taking in everything about America. I saw him last week for lunch. A 30 year old man studying for his MBA in London. Still sweet. Still interested in the world. He described his travels to Japan and all over Europe. And he talked about coming to America. I asked: 'Do you remember when the power went out because of the ice storm? "Clearly." And you were so cold? "Clearly." Keith and I came over with flashlights (torches) and candles and blankets. Do you remember? Big smile. "Clearly." In the time that we knew the Bhanas in Illinois, I learned to make proper tea from Asha and I wish I had learned more recipes. We had such wonderful meals at their house! They lived in the faculty housing, especially for international students. Samir tells me now, 19 years later that it was a good experience. He was excited to go to America. Mayur, his younger brother was too young to understand that their father was gone just for a while, not forever. Oh the joy when he saw his father again in Illinois! And what a strange place to be....he had just been told that the reason he couldn't have a bottle anymore is because a monkey took it. No monkeys in Illinois....


A week in rural, western Ireland? Don't mind if I do!

Several years ago, Keith was interviewed by BBC science reporter Tracey Logan. On subsequent of his trips to London, he became friends with her and also her husband, Richard. Now the whole family is in London and we managed to wrangle an invite to their vacation home in Rosmindle, Ireland.

I first met Tracey and Richard about a week and a half after we'd arrived when they had us to their house in Chiswick for lunch on St. Patrick's Day. Tracey and I got along splendidly and after another lunch (just the two of us) it was easy to see that we could enjoy a week together. When it had first been proposed to me, months ago in California, I had been a bit skeptical. A week in a small house in the middle of nowhere with people I've never met? Hmmmm.... It worked out brilliantly.

Tracey turns out to be the sort of person who says things like: "I dismiss decaf and all it's empty promises." Or: "Ever since I got that pep message from my Weight Watcher's leader I've been wanting crisps."

We flew from Gatwick airport to Knock, Ireland, a pretty small place which has an airport only because a priest decided to make it a pilgrim destination after someone saw the Virgin Mary in something. Tracey and Richard picked us up. We drove from Knock (very small city) through rural areas to Westport (very very small city) and finally to Rosmindle (hamlet) and then to their house outside that on the end of a spit of land facing Clew Bay which feeds into the Atlantic. I erroneously reported that their house was named Rosmindle but that's not the case. However, their house has no number and their 'street' has no name. I asked how they got mail delivered. They said they went to the post office and introduced themselves and told them where they lived.

What a lovely stone house! Most of the windows look out on Clew Bay or the finger of land across where sheep and cows graze and make their farm noises. We were there not long after many of the new kids were born---super cute little bits of fluff tottering after their mums. As often happens to me when I go to places that are supposed to be overcast (my favorite type of weather) we had unseasonably sunny days. Everywhere people were commenting about it and all I could say is: "You're welcome."

Because of the great weather we had fantastic views. An old schoolhouse on the island across the bay was perfectly reflected in the water, shimmering white. Even with a lot of sun, there were still clouds moving across the sky all day. Ireland is very moody. What I loved about being so far out is that the landscape was hugely uncluttered. I could look out and see nothing but natural features. When we were driving around we did see some areas of mc-mansions but for the most part it was just engulfing beauty.

The small town of Westport has a square of streets with shops and pubs and farther out some terrace houses and cottages. On a couple mornings when Tracey had business in town, I went in with her and just wandered around for an hour. What happiness! My favorite thing! Tracey and I took turns cooking dinner so I also ducked into the grocery store and the produce shop for fresh ingredients. For Keith's birthday I made sea bass with an olive tapenade sort of topping, rice pilaf, asparagus with Parmesan and a green salad. On one night Tracey made a traditional Irish stew with mutton and she routinely made Irish soda bread, scones, and tea bread. A yummy time was had by all. Or, as they say here, "Scrummy!" In addition, Tracey had stocked up on local homemade goodies, including fresh butter, cheeses, and an amazing rhubarb and ginger jam.

 On one day I went with Tracey and Richard to County Galway to a research institute on the coast so Tracey could interview a scientist about using seaweed in food. For tagging along, I also got to taste some. Dillisk (or Dulce) sort of tasted like lettuce. The one called lettuce seaweed tasted like cucumber. There was one called chili seaweed that did indeed leave a slow warmth in your mouth. Another looked like fat wholewheat spaghetti and tasted like udon noodles. I could absolutely imagine cooking with this stuff. What we tasted was literally straight out of the ocean and probably doesn't resemble the stuff found in markets. The scientist had also made varieties of a traditional Irish pudding (can't remember the name!) which tasted a lot like Spanish flan. There are a lot of health benefits from eating seaweed so it's great to find ways of including it in staple foods like bread. There will be a half hour radio show about this and I'll try to link to it when it's out.

On the way to the seaweed experience, Richard and Tracey and I stopped for a lovely crab salad lunch in Clifden, a picturesque small town with residents huddled under awnings drinking coffee or beer and enjoying the fresh air. We drove by a huge fjord and through mountains and valleys, passing people cutting turf for fuel out of the vast boglands. There were lots of sheep--some of them meandering on the road--and cows and horses in pastures.

 The boys loved the two beaches we visited with tide pools to explore, rocks to climb, and sand to build with. And they also had fun on the afternoon we went to visit Tracey's cousin, his wife, and their 3 kids. Their backyard was practically its own playground with a trampoline, swing set, teeter-totter, small wooden house, and soccer goal nets. We sat in their beautiful, large kitchen and had tea with sandwiches and pastries. I can definitely get into the ritual of afternoon tea--but oi! the pounds!

On the day we flew out of Knock, there had been an emergency landing at Gatwick which meant all the flights were delayed. We had to sit in the tiny departure lounge with all the other stranded travelers which is when, I'm pretty sure, we all contracted a cold.

There were a pair of 3 year old twins near us and I was struck with how much easier life has become with the boys. They were a little younger than those 2 boys when we moved to Virginia. What a huge amount of work that was, I thought. At that point our guys were doing great....however, by the time we were in the taxi and it was almost 10 pm, full meltdown had begun. At three they probably would have fallen asleep on our laps. At five they were yelling and demanding. When we had all just been sitting still trying not to breathe, Owen came out with: 'Don't touch me!' and Lionel, no where near him started crying and screaming "I didn't!' Keith and I just murmured and whispered and gently directed them into their beds. Within 5 minutes they were asleep. Whew. Still, no question. A week in rural Ireland? Yes thank you! Loved it!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Odds and bobs, part 3

In observing the differences between Americans and the British, I'm learning about myself, namely, my Americanism. I think I'm going along being myself and that I would be myself no matter what but being American has shaped me--not just in the way I talk. I know that the influence of culture is not a revelation. I wonder what sort of a person I would be if I'd grown up somewhere else. How much of me would still be here?

Commercials during cartoons here are heartbreaking! "Emma used to run and play. She liked reading books. Now she's going blind...." or "There are only 35 snow leopards left in the wild. She survives the harshest winters only to be ruthlessly hunted by poachers...." or (picture of a beagle looking out a window) "I know what it's like to love someone who doesn't love you. I loved my owner. One day he left and never came back..." They're all asking for money. I guess the strategy is to get the kids to beg the parents and who could refuse?

It's quite aesthetically pleasing that all electrical wires are underground. It wasn't until we were in rural Ireland and I saw a few wires that I realized I hadn't seen any before.

I've been noticing some differences between the twins that seem to be fairly solid traits. Of course they have sort of traded traits in the past so I could be wrong. Lionel wants to hold hands and Owen sometimes has to be coerced. When we are walking around an airport or other crowded place, Lionel takes care to make sure we are all together. Owen wanders off. In their roughhouse play, Owen is most often the aggressor and likes to play fight. This was even true in utero--poor Lionel was born with bruises on his back from Owen kicking him!

Owen informs me that he has planned an escape for Tubby, Keith's childhood (and adulthood) teddy bear. Tubby is currently inside a box in a storage pod in San Jose. Owen says to Tubby: "In one of your sleeves is a pair of scissors for opening up the box and in the other sleeve is a plane ticket." Now if only he can get to the airport...

One calls ON a number and lives IN a street.

If I think of the pound as a dollar, things seem mildly expensive. When I add the 60% exchange--blimey!--this is an expensive city/country. A large (600 gram)box of Cheerios costs 2.75 pounds. Seems reasonable. But that translates to roughly 5 dollars! For a box of cereal! And plain cereal at that. Rice Crispies will run you close to 7 bucks. And Cheerios here are from Nestle. Aren't they a General Mills cereal?

While the boys haven't developed an accent, they have started using some of the different colloquialisms. They'll say "mind that bush." I love hearing them talk about 'getting sorted.'

The London Eye

The London Eye is basically a Ferris Wheel on a gigantic scale. Instead of a seat for 2 or 3 people dangling their legs, the Eye is made up of oblong transparent compartments that hold around 30 people who can sit on a bench or mill about taking in the 360 degree views.

It took me half a day to get tickets for the London Eye. That's not the norm (I assume!) but that's what happened to me. There was some sort of problem with my address. Zipcodes here are very specific. The first part (W11) gives the general area. Somehow the second part (2NS) pinpoints our actual flat. The website had a function to search for the actual address. The options were 26a or 26 Lansdowne Crescent. Neither one worked. I eventually ordered by phone and the fellow on the other end was kind enough to give me the internet rate.

But then.....we arrive at the London Eye. There are people queuing all over the place and no clear signage. Keith opts to take the boys to the loo while I pick up our tickets. I spent about ten minutes in the wrong line until the person in front of me asked someone which line they should be in. Turns out I should be in the same line. Another huge long queue. There was the option of using a machine to print out your tickets using your reservation number and name but it didn't work for me---again the address problem. Behind me in line was a woman wearing an adorable baby. She spoke English and French and was with the baby's grandmother who spoke only French. Fun to listen because i could actually understand the daughter-in-law--probably because she was speaking 'learned' French and slowly. They left to use the machine.

Next up, a young couple. The woman had done the Eye before. She told me that there was another queue after this one but promised that it would move quickly. She also said that it was great that it was sunny because one of her friends had ridden the Eye on a cloudy day and couldn't see anything.

I remarked to Keith that the British were supposed to be known for politely queuing. He pointed out quite correctly that almost everyone there was not British.

The final queue did indeed move quickly. The wheel does not stop moving when you board. It is rotating slowly. At one point they open the doors and let the previous passengers walk onto the exit ramp and at the next stop they usher a crowd forward and then lock the doors. We could see everything. I purchased the mini guide which showed the view 360 in day and night. Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament were the most obvious being so near by. We could see Buckingham palace in the distance, Charing Cross Station, boats along the River Thames, etc. The whole experience takes about 30 minutes which is plenty of time to enjoy the views and the cool shadow of the Eye on the river. I bet it would be a great experience at night. Keith wondered if anyone had ever gotten married on a ride.

Included in the ticket price was a trip to a 4-D experience. We lined up in the dark wearing the special glasses. There were the usual 3-D images but it became '4-D' when a bubble popped and we felt water on our face. Steam swirled at another point.

This day was quite harrowing with the crowds and the bright sun. Oh, and a mutinous Owen mid stair-way coming out of the underground. I kept trying to get to the railing to go down stairs safely but inevitably there would be a crowd stopped to take a picture that I would have to go around. Also, because I wasn't moving fast enough, people kept zipping around me which caused me to go even more slowly. Grrrr. This is an instance where using the cane would be helpful because it would indicate to other people that I'm struggling. I really need to carry that with me and whip it out more often.

While we were waiting for our train home in the underground, a little boy (2-ish) suddenly reached over, grabbed Lionel's shoulder, and shouted "HI!" Lionel was completely startled and moved down the bench. Owen moved down and Lionel moved even farther away. i sat down and said HI! After talking to his mother I learned that he speaks Italian and the only English word he knows is hi! "HI!" he shouted again. His mother is Italian and his father is from Mali but for some reason he looked like my niece Gem and I'm pretty sure she has no roots in Italy or Mali.

Also at the V&A...

The jewelry room: very dark except for the lighted displays of jewels. I'm proud to say that I only bumped into two people and it was their fault for wearing black. It's astonishing to realize that these elaborate tiaras and necklaces and rings actually were worn by real people to actual events. Glittering, teetering women and posing men. I also enjoyed seeing something more ordinary: a chatelaine. This is a sort of belt worn by housekeepers and landladies. Since most dresses did not have pockets, they wore this contraption from which dangled various useful household items such as keys, scissors, a thimble, a purse for coins, etc. I thought briefly of Snyder from One Day at a Time.

Design through the 20th century: Chairs, tea sets, lamps, radios, cabinets and more through the 20th century. For some reason it makes me happy to see these things and imagine the daily lives of people from another time. I find it easier to imagine sitting down to tea in a side chair next to a radio in the 1940s than to imagine wearing a gigantic frock and pounds of jewels. I'm really more of a chatelaine type of gal....

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Victoria and Albert Museum

On April 5 I went to the Victoria and Albert Museum of Art and Design. Knowing that the boys would want to race through gathering pamphlets and that I would want to linger, Keith agreed to stay with the boys.

Once I arrived and looked at the map I was so excited....that I needed to find a bathroom ASAP. (I'm sorry--I know that's TMI. But because of this I saw the museum in fits and starts as I walked swiftly about looking for a toilet.)

It's amazing how much gold and silver and frocks and sculpture and jewels and gemstones and paintings and tiles and tapestries and design artifacts one can find in this building. Bathrooms: not so much. Partly my dilemma was my fault as I am basically incapable of reading a map correctly. However, I also blame the complete lack of signage. Even asking guards for directions wasn't very useful. "Go past the silver, turn right at the lion. There will be a staircase. Don't go up it, but nearby will be a wooden door. Just through there." Finally, after I'd encountered the same guard a couple of times, he sighed and walked me to the door. Teeny weeny sign. Inside the door, no signs, all white, stairs going down. I go down one level and find a door for the gents. No signs. Down another level and I find a handicapper level. Down another level and I see a sign to exit for the cafe. Having started on the 3rd floor, I was now in the basement and still no bathroom in sight. I inquired of a couple of women adjusting their jackets and they pointed to a door under the stairs. At last! But no.....there were only 3 stalls. One was clogged and 2 were occupied. Oh, will I ever get to see the museum??? Of course, eventually.

Okay, Victoria and Albert may or may not have been great rulers. They (well, their minions) were without a doubt incredible collectors and as their legacy the museum continues gathering and presenting artifacts. One of the most remarkable exhibits was a temporary one showcasing a very large cape and a shawl made from the golden silk of millions of female orb spiders. The time consuming process of removing the silk involves capturing individual spiders and placing them in a contraption that holds them still. Then a worker pulls their silk out all day. I couldn't gather from the short movie what happened to the spider after her ordeal. Did they let her go? Could she live a normal spider life after being debauched in such a manner?

The 'harvesting' of the silk and weaving of these gorgeous garments was accomplished in Madagascar over a period of 8 years. From the 'short sharp science' blog: "Weight for weight, typical spider silk is 20 times as strong as steel and four times as tough as Kevlar. It's also extremely flexible, stretching up to 50 per cent of its length without breaking. Silk is also biodegradable and does not elicit an immune response, which means it could be put to a range of uses within the human body." All in all, spider silk seems like a great resource. How long before PETA (or PETI?) become involved?

Like much of the V&A, the first floor is pretty boggling to walk through. A long sculpture gallery is flanked by exhibits from various parts of Asia. I was weaving in and out but I'm sure I missed some marvelous little room with an incredible little nugget of perfection. At some point I will learn how to post pictures here. In the meantime, I'm posting them on facebook.

Just a quick note: this museum was incredibly treacherous for me. Steps without warning. Large hard things looming everywhere. Children running underfoot. I just walked very slowly---which is not in my nature(unless I'm staring at a piece of art)
and little children ran around me and almost over me (well, over my feet). It's interesting getting used to being the woman that kids will secretly laugh at. I don't begrudge them--I was the same way--and I can let it roll off.

The 3rd floor is where I wanted to be. There I saw a wonderful display related to performance art----costumes, programs, posters, props, etc. At the end there was a place for trying on costumes. I will bring the boys back for that. They can dress up like Frog and Toad. And other fabulous things. One poster made me stop in my tracks: it was for an opera written by Carl Nielsen, my purported great grandfather. I once bought a CD of his music and Nielsen was spelled wrong. It was clearly right on this poster and so validating to see!

This is for you, Gal Friday: there was a hallway devoted to sketches and watercolors by Beatrix Potter. Super sweet. Some were of the characters with which you are familiar. Some were sketches of landscapes, etc. Very nice. I tarried awhile.

I will have much more to tell,but that's it for now.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Some thoughts on walking around with limited vision

It's been hard to describe my visual experience to others. People often underestimate and overestimate my limitations. To random people in the world, I'm sure I look crazy weird as I try to navigate stairs and shadows. To people who see me in my familiar settings, I appear completely free of disability.

A few months ago I had my yearly appointment with a retina specialist to get the latest information on the degradation of my retinal cells. No surprise--things are worse. But when I was talking to the specialist in this field and tried to describe my problem with stairs he didn't understand what I meant. As this is one of the signal difficulties I experience with RP (Retinitis Pigmentosa), I assumed he would be familiar with this and would have heard similar complaints from other patients. Nope. This just underscored to me the fact that every person experiences RP differently, which also makes it feel more difficult to explain the experience, and makes me feel more alone in my experience.

Lighting makes a huge difference. On a foggy or overcast day, I can navigate much more easily. On a sunny day every shadow feels like a looming tree branch or eave about to crash into my head. I've bashed my head enough times to be wary. Walking into shade feels like walking into an abyss. There could be flat sidewalk ahead or stairs or a hole. This is when I start to look crazy as I walk about. If I suddenly duck when there's nothing there (except a shadow) I look like the lady who talks to herself. Scanning about for signals like railings or stripes I will tentatively step forward. Most likely, I am talking to myself at that point which only adds to the craziness. I bump into people a lot. I am unintentionally rude in art museums because if I'm focusing on a piece of art I cannot focus on someone else's line of sight.

I have absolutely no ability to discern where steps start and when it is the last step. This has been the most hazardous aspect of RP so far. And it's been hell on my shoes because I have to tap forward to find the next step going up and bang my heel backwards when going down stairs. Have you ever had the experience of thinking that you are at the bottom of the stairs and then discovering, with a thud of your foot, that there is one more? That happens to me often when I am in an unfamiliar setting. Have you ever tripped on an unexpectedly lifted bit of cement? That happens constantly to me. It turns out you can't look down at the ground to watch your step at the same time as looking up for looming branches,etc., as well as traffic and other pedestrians AT THE SAME TIME.

All the vision I do have is at the center so I have to scan to get the full picture of what is around me. If I'm talking to you, I can't see the person next to you which leads to me unintentionally being rude in conversations because I'll miss cues that someone is about to speak and things like that. It also contributes to my hesitancy crossing streets. Did I miss any cars or bikes or pedestrians?

I have absolutely no night vision. My eyes do not adjust to the dark, ever. For some reason, many museums have very dark rooms or corridors, especially in displays of video. There I have to basically hug the wall and creep along slowly like an agoraphobic.

Westminster Abbey was an incredible challenge. The stone floors, being centuries old, are quite uneven and there are random steps up and down with no warning or railings. it was totally nerve-wracking, especially because I wanted to be looking around at the wonderful architecture and tombs and stained glass and not at the stones at my feet. London, in general, is a place of uneven sidewalks and then there's the fact of cars coming from unexpected (to me) directions.

I had a revelation this past summer when I dropped the boys off at preschool and walked out into the sun by myself. I was instantly incredibly tentative and realized that I had been using first the stroller and then the boys as guides. When pushing the stroller I had a way of 'feeling' what the ground was like and walking with the boys each holding a hand, I could gauge from their actions what the ground was like.

Tonight, walking home from dinner, I said to Keith: "I hate that it's just a matter of time until I fall again." He started in about using the white cane more often, etc., etc. Finally I just had to say that even with every precaution, it's still a matter of time. I still have a bump next to my eye from my fall in San Francisco. It's scary just to take a step when you don't know where your foot will land. And yes, I will use the cane more often.

Paper Chase

My boys are obsessed with paper. Obsessed! They have an uncanny ability to find and collect any bits of free paper around. Before we left California, I recycled bags and bags of paper. They each had a large shopping bag filled with old catalogs that they think I actually paid to put into storage for 5 months. I keep hoping they will have forgotten by the time we return but every time they mention their bags I sort of gulp. Mommy lied! To be fair to myself, I did save for them lots of notebooks and coloring books--legitimate paper that wasn't, say, a pamphlet about vaccinating seniors for shingles.

Since we've arrived in England, they have accumulated:

1 large catalog for kitchen equipment and 1 phone book (one for each--has to be even!)
grocery magazines of recipes and coupons
tube map
bus map
welcome to london pamphlet
info on buying cell phones
a newspaper
requests to donate to oxfam
guide to river thames boats
info on topping off cell phones
more info on cell phones
how to get a Boots advantage card
info on hair retention
business card for elite car rental
more info on London underground
the American Air magazine
guide to nutrition in pregnancy
car insurance offers
and more.....These collections also include cut snips of paper, drawings, napkins, and any other detritus of the flat and paper variety.

All times 2 of course. One nice thing is that when one of them finds available paper, they always get two so they can each have one.

They call these collections their 'information' and want to take it with them whenever they leave the house and no mommy-logic will dissuade that we will not need a catalog of furniture while we are grocery shopping. "Oh, but Beary is decorating his house and I can make orders using my brain computer." Hard to argue with that.

They are tearful when I explain that they can't take all of this to Ireland. Don't know how to convey that it's also not going back to California! We will allow a few pieces, of course.

And this paper is taken very seriously. The other day they placed all of their paper out on the floor to match with each other--each brochure matched, each pamphlet, etc. Keith said: "This is some game you've got going." Owen: "This is no game!"